“What’s the secret?”
Zachary Cole Smith exhales cigarette smoke and smiles. We’re in an alleyway somewhere in East London during his first visit to the city in three years, trying to figure out just how he managed to breathe life back into his band. Back in March 2016, DIIV were dead. In the wake of their second album ‘Is The Is Are’, they could barely hold it together to make it through a tour, plagued by various destructive issues spearheaded by Cole’s battle with drug addiction. He burst into tears on stage at a gig in Leeds, and they cancelled the remaining dates. When they returned to America, they did so with the fear that they might never play together again. The band’s core had gone rotten.
But now, after some kind of miracle, Cole is back opposite NME, with bassist Colin Caulfield by his side. Caulfield initially joined on keyboard, before replacing original bass player Devin Ruben Perez some time ago, and is now settled in DIIV’s line-up alongside original guitarist Andrew Bailey and drummer Ben Newman. All three have been close to Cole since he dreamt up the idea for DIIV – a band that would play euphoric, psychedelic rock music where all components were equal, swirling and coalescing into a propulsive noise – in New York back in 2011.
Cole, who uses his middle name after ditching first name Zachary years ago, is laughing because the idea that there’s an easy explanation behind their return is ridiculous.
“A lot of people experience this, it’s really common for people to go through periods of recovery, relapse. It’s a part of their story and it’s a part of mine,” he says. “Everybody has a moment where they’re like, ‘This is enough, this is as far down as I’m gonna go’. You just decide to surrender.”
The band pulled the last few dates of that 2016 tour due to “an urgent health issue”. Only now is it clear just how true those words were.
“That tour felt pretty close to [the end],” says Cole, before tailing off and looking up at the sky.
“It definitely felt like an end point,” says Colin, stepping in. “I had tried really hard to be as supportive as possible for a long time. It was a hands up moment, it was the type of realisation Cole had to come to himself. And he did, which is great.”
And yet, things were once so simple for DIIV.
Their debut album ‘Oshin‘ came out in June 2012, a web of guitars, bass, drums and vocals mixed evenly by Cole, who produced the record. It was like a hosepipe on full blast, a fire hydrant, distilling Cole’s vision. After playing almost a show every night in New York for months on end, they toured it hard, and a joint UK run with Captured Tracks labelmate Mac DeMarco lives long in fans’ memories. Backstage antics amounted to DIIV listing Mac’s sleeping eye mask for auction on eBay. Cole would use it to get some rest after shows.
But as time wore on, the nights got later and Cole’s interviews became increasingly outspoken. Drug references kept cropping up, and journalists fixated on the singer’s affection for Kurt Cobain, probing him for a reaction. Shows were cancelled, and at times no one around the band seemed to have a handle on things. Disaster struck in September 2013, when Cole was arrested alongside his then-girlfriend Sky Ferreira, with heroin and ecstasy reportedly found in his battered old van. They were driving to a show in upstate, New York. There were mugshots and unsavoury comments. Then, Perez came under fire for posting racist remarks on 4chan in 2014. DIIV were off the rails. They played the gigs they could get to, and the 63-minute ‘Is The Is Are’, which would add dark shades of Sonic Youth to their sound, was much-delayed.
When it did eventually surface, it showed brilliant development, DIIV had enriched the old magic and it was supposed to be a story of rehabilitation. Cole had undergone treatment, and the record’s lyrics charted the highs and lows of drug culture. But it was a false dawn, and its maker has waited three years for another shot. Well, now, he’s got it.
We start our conversation downstairs in a busy restaurant, but the thrum in the background is too much to bear for the pair, who can’t think straight when we pose “the serious questions”. So we head upstairs and Cole and Colin light cigarettes, it’s the frontman’s only vice these days, unless you count too many games of collectible card game Magic: The Gathering.
“In the same way where I had to surrender, where I’m powerless over my addiction, we’re each as people powerless over what other people do,” he says, picking up the thread of recovery.
“The most you can do is control what you can control, which is, keep your side of the street clean, be a support system and be a positive influence, but you can’t make anyone else do anything, Especially when it’s such a big life change like that. Nobody can force you into it. You’ve got to surrender yourself.”
Cole waved the white flag in California, after uprooting to Los Angeles permanently and seeking to change things for good. He found a settled relationship, and is now engaged. It was a friend of his partner’s family, a Vietnam veteran who’s battled alcoholism, who put him onto the place he’d eventually clean up in.
“The big thing was that in all my exposure to recovery, I was looking for an easy solution and I found out there’s not one,” he says. The answer proved to be “lots of hard work” on himself and his relationships, building bridges burned by untruths and let downs.
At the facility in Venice Beach, Cole was in “a garage in a shared room with four other guys, really different from each other”. He says they developed “really profound relationships”.
“There was a huge emphasis on making your bed, self care. I always thought I was making the bed because they were asking me to, but it’s a way of taking care of yourself,” he says. “It was a life-changing experience for sure. It was pretty brutal, a lot of being physically uncomfortable.”
Essentially, Cole explains, the experience allowed him to recalibrate, and a new emphasis on honesty and fairness would not only lead to DIIV coming together again, it would define the album they’d go on to make.
“I came out and worked on a record in a new way and all those lessons I learned were applied to the process,” he says. “It feels great, I just want to do it again. I’m not ashamed to talk about the record, I’m just proud of it.”
‘Deceiver’ has just come out, and anyone who’s heard it will likely understand Cole’s pride. It’s not as brilliantly simple as ‘Oshin’ and the white-knuckle chaos of ‘Is The Is Are’ is muted, but this is DIIV’s most complete album. The artwork matches the title, and Cole chose it from a recent show by Australian painter Rhys Lee. He felt its “grotesque painting of a Pinocchio mask” in dark “black metal” colours was a fair representation. Its lyrics are full of anguish, too. Over the cascading melody of The Spark, Cole sings, “It’s our past/It’s a wreck”, while brutal closer Acheron – the record’s longest, loudest song – houses the lines, “Hate the god/I don’t believe in/Heaven’s just a part of hell”.
Sessions in LA saw them work with a producer for the first time, and Sonny Diperri – who has worked alongside Flood and Alan Moulder and helped make records for Trent Reznor, My Bloody Valentine and Protomartyr – is a good fit. Cole drafted him in to seek out a heavier sound, and says he quickly understood the “non-verbal” language DIIV speak and got on board with the “brutal honesty” in the studio. Funnily enough, Diperri had to leave DIIV’s session partway through to answer the call for MBV, and their influence is heard on ‘Deceiver’, alongside noise merchants True Widow and Neurosis. It’s important to note the tenderness in amongst the noise too, Cole’s vocal is almost always backed by Colin’s, and they sing quietly, betraying the frontman’s obsession with Elliott Smith and Alex G.
We delve into the circumstances that led up to the making of ‘Deceiver’ before discussing the album itself not because this story needs sensationalising, but because to understand the record fully, it’s necessary to know the bare bones DIIV were stripped back to before they could make it.
The rebuilding process was real. Car rides to and from the studio were shared and full of music talk, the four hung out constantly, practicing the songs long and loud just like they did in their mouldy spaces with their name spelled out on the wall in gaffer tape in New York.
In the meantime, Captured Tracks – who had sent flowers to Cole as he recovered – waited patiently to hear the music.
“The label are family, they’ve been unconditionally supportive. I’m really grateful for the relationships in the band, amazed they stuck it out,” says Cole. “At the core of it all, playing music together has always been exciting for us, and applying that to writing and and hanging out made it really fun to make this record, which for a pretty serious record is weird to say.”
Colin looks at his friend with obvious affection.
“It’s more honest and it’s a real honesty,” he says. “We’d rebuilt the friendships within the band before we’d started working. It wasn’t a real time digestion of everything; it was summing up what we’d already gone through, it didn’t feel cathartic in the moment. It was describing these earlier cathartic processes, but there wasn’t that intensity of the last record.”
Suddenly ‘Is The Is Are’’s explicit drug references come to life in real time, as a man in a suit interrupts Colin’s train of thought. It turns out he’s approaching us to ask if we know where he can get some cocaine, would you believe it.
“Sure,” says Cole, grinning again. Of course, he’s kidding. “The sweaty businessman look? He’s just time-warped from the 1980s or he’s definitely a police officer.”
The guy walks off, in pursuit of the kind of night out DIIV have left behind. As if to celebrate, Cole and Colin talk glowingly of a 2018 tour with progressive San Francisco metallers Deafheaven – who are also sober – where they roadtested Deceiver’s unfinished songs.
“It helped us grow up a little bit, they had done a lot of growing up too,” says Cole. “In some ways it felt like a big brother band, watching them like, ‘Man, you guys have it so figured out’ and wanting to do that.”
Colin says the run of dates boosted DIIV’s confidence to go forward.
“Incessantly talking about honesty, that’s at the core of the band now,” he explains. “Everything previously was guarded and everything that was said had a motivation behind it, now, we just talk to each other the way we would want to be talked to.”
We’ve been out in the alleyway a while now, and Cole suggests wandering back to find our food. Back inside, he ends up catching the back of his throat with the heat of a spicy watermelon salad.
As he coughs, we consider what life in this band will be like without substances and mania. Life on the road is already easier and Colin says things are healthier than ever. February’s UK tour takes in a show at London’s O2 Forum, Kentish Town – their biggest here to date – and they’re targeting Glastonbury and Later… With Jools Holland.
“We’re totally comfortable speaking our minds, honesty is sometimes difficult in the moment but it saves a lot of future stress,” says Cole, who’s learned from sometimes being too explicit in interviews. “There’s a lot to learn from doing press, mostly what not to say. [Some old interviews] feel stupid compared to now, but it is what it is, I can’t change it.”
You get the impression he doesn’t care either way. And why should he? DIIV have made an album they feel is their best work, they’re proud of it and whatever anyone else thinks will come as a bonus, they can’t control it.
Plus, when they’re not thinking about music, there’s plenty to occupy their minds. Colin has taken up gardening and tennis in LA, while Cole and his fiancée are currently looking after a 65-litre saltwater fish tank.
“It takes up a lot of our day. It’s a very complex operation,” he says, eyes lighting up. “It’s these most fragile creatures and you have to keep them alive and make them thrive and grow. A 0.1 degree increase in temperature will kill them; it reminds you how fragile, beautiful and diverse the reef ecosystems are. It’s a lot of taking measurements of magnesium, calcium, phosphates and whatever.”
Clearly, DIIV are relishing a change in lifestyle. “In New York, my hobby was being miserable and going to bars,” says Colin with a smile. “Now, I know my neighbours and play tennis with random people.”
But the one thing that hasn’t changed for this rag-tag band is the kinetic energy of their music. Bruised and battered, DIIV’s sound remains intact, despite it all. It exists as it was conceived: to provide escape, to make your surroundings evaporate.
“There is this fleeting thing, some kind of DIIV sound that we can’t really put our finger on, but we know it when we hear it,” Cole says, pushing his plate away to signal dinner is over. “There are moments where we try to capture it…”
With ‘Deceiver’, DIIV have saved their sound. Enjoy it while you can.